Friday, January 13, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: January 12, 4:28 PM UK
Rolling back the years
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week: decision time for Arsene Wenger, Mark Hughes' appointment at QPR, a patched-up Manchester United, wobbling Manchester City, and a resurgent Sunderland.
Arsenal: Decisions, decisions
If, on Monday night, when watching the bearded Thierry Henry side-foot into the far corner against Leeds United in the FA Cup even a flicker of emotion did not stir inside of you then you are either a Tottenham fan or, deep down, not a fan of football at all. This was a memorable moment for the very reason that it evoked memories of Henry in his pomp at Arsenal, a true great of our time.
Now the 34-year-old Frenchman has returned in a time of need for the Gunners, and his seemingly inevitable impact on his comeback has provided his manager, Arsene Wenger, with decisions to make over team selection for the trip to Swansea City on Sunday. Remember, prior to the jubilation at Emirates Stadium on 78 minutes, a Robin van Persie-less Arsenal were firing blanks against their Championship opponents, while seven days ago they shot themselves in the foot at Fulham.
"Robin will be back against Swansea," Wenger said this week. "Will Thierry start or not? I don't know yet. He can play behind or in front of Robin or on the flank - Robin can play on the flank too - but I don't know yet what I will do. They can play together, of course, and they did play together." The Frenchman is unsure of what to do with his veteran. One would imagine that removing the on-fire Van Persie from his central role would be tantamount to suicide. That said, with Gervinho now departed for the African Nations Cup and Andrei Arshavin perpetually frustrating, it is not inconceivable that Henry could start for Arsenal at the Liberty Stadium. And it is not just in attack where Wenger must rub his temples, for defence inflicts a migraine, and, unlike Dimitar Berbatov, Henry cannot play centre-back.
Arsenal's backline injury list currently reads: Thomas Vermaelen, Andre Santos, Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson and Francis Coquelin. With Sebastien Squillaci dangerously close to becoming a regular in the starting XI, there is reason to be fearful, in particular with what awaits after a trip to Wales: hosting the champions. Versus Swansea's dainty football, Arsenal should not be unsettled in a game of like-for-like, with the flirting for possession the focus. Yet the North London side should be on their guard, as Swansea are team hard to beat on home soil, suffering defeat just once in the Premier League thus far, and conceding as few as four goals.
QPR: Blind ambition
Speaking after having parted company with Fulham in 2011, Mark Hughes said: "I felt my ambition for where I wanted to take the club was not matched. Historically, Fulham was a club that was happy to be in the Premier League and that was their ambition but it was not my ambition for them."
On January 11, 2012, Hughes was appointed manager of Queens Park Rangers, a side that achieved promotion from the Championship last season and now residing a place and a point above the drop zone. Reacting to the appointment on Tuesday, QPR chairman Tony Fernandes, perhaps tellingly, said: "His ambitions match those of the board and we are delighted to have him at the helm."
These comments followed a Daily Mirror report that alleged the sacked Neil Warnock's wish to sign Blackburn striker Yakubu, who has scored 18 times this season, was not ambitious enough for the QPR hierarchy. Regardless, the writing was on the wall for Warnock, after the club managed just one victory in 11 top flight matches, with eight of those ending in defeat. For Hughes, his challenge begins at Newcastle United, while he has 18 days to work the transfer market, with money seemingly there to burn, but burn wisely. Hughes has work to do on his own reputation, too, having been left to look red-faced when he left Fulham for no role elsewhere, amid murmurs he had been promised by a certain someone that the Aston Villa, or even Chelsea, gig was his for the taking.
Manchester United: Temporary fix
Yes, United beat City at home by three goals to two. Yes, it was a welcome triumph (not, however, for the FA after what the subsequent fourth round draw revealed) that helped to numb at least some of the pain caused by their league humiliation endured earlier this season. But, no, it did not banish the concerns raised over Sir Alex Ferguson's team. In fact, those question marks were exacerbated as news filtered through that Paul Scholes had come out of retirement to aid the Red Devils' dwindling midfield options. Like in the instance of Arsenal bringing in Henry, quite what the recalling a 37-year-old tells the likes of Anderson and Paul Pogba is anyone's guess. For United, the performance against ten-man City was iffy, and at home against Bolton on Saturday the champions must convince whilst avoiding the unthinkable and surely impossible: a third straight Premier League defeat.
Manchester City: Wobbling
They've lost their talismanic captain, their box-to-box midfielder, and they've lost their last two cup outings. That's four defeats in eight outings. 'Crisis' is hyperbole, Alan Hansen, but Roberto Mancini still might worry. Certainly he looked a little frazzled in his post-match interview following Wednesday's 1-0 loss against Liverpool in the Carling Cup, the Italian shorn of the outstanding Vincent Kompany for the first of four matches due to his contentious suspension and Yaya (and Kolo) Toure at the African Nations Cup. Mancini's menace was not misplaced, though, after he rightly questioned how Glen Johnson escaped the same red fate as the Belgian for a more excessive two-footed challenge. A scalp of Wigan on Monday looks inevitable, but thereafter in the league they host Tottenham, a team playing near-erotic football and currently three points off the top.
Same players, different manager, very different results. Martin O'Neill has won five of his matches in charge since taking over from Steve Bruce at the Stadium of Light, and he has yet to imprint his own image on the squad via the process of additions. After upsetting the apple cart with a stunningly late scalp of Manchester City on January 1, what odds of a repeat against Chelsea? What is of intrigue is whether this run by the Black Cats - for whom the 22-year-old James McClean is worth keeping an eye on - is down to the positivity that so often arrives with a new managerial appointment or O'Neill's magic spell is there to stay.
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